Deck the shed with bits of wattle,
fa la la la, la la la la,
Whack some gum leaves in a bottle,
fa la la la, la la la la la,
All the shops are open Sundays,
fa la la la, la la la la,
Buy your Dad some socks and undies,
fa la la la, la la la la la.
Deck the shed with bits of gumtree,
fa la la la, la la la la,
Hang the deco’s off the plum tree,
fa la la la, la la la la la,
Plant some kisses on the missus, fa la la la, la la la la,
Have a ripper Aussie Christmas, fa la la la, la la la la la.
* * *
For the first time in several years, we weren’t to spend our Christmas holidays in Manyana. Instead, the six of us had accepted an invitation from our friend Maggie to housesit. Her home was located a short distance from our own property, and, as our shed was not yet outfitted comfortably, it seemed ideal to stay at Maggie’s and from there, to visit our new acquisition. Rick and I celebrated Christmas Day with our kids in Sydney, then headed up the coast to join the others.
The six of us set about having as much fun on our own turf as we had ever had in Christmases past, and did indeed have a ripper Aussie Christmas.
We were partly tourists, swimming and walking the ocean beaches each day like all the other holiday-makers. We tested the coffees at Manning Point, and rented kayaks to explore the local Manning River, where we experienced dolphins cresting only metres from us. We spent New Year’s Eve at the Blue Water Café, celebrating with a ceremony of acknowledgement and appreciation that carved out a strong intention for our partnership over the coming year.
At the same time, we were partly landowners, getting the feel of our four acres of land. We strolled down our hillside, daydreaming about the property’s future. Rick and Daniel mowed the lawns on the upper part of the property with an old ride-on mower which had come with the deal. We pulled out masses of yellow-blooming fireweed; we measured out the floor space of our shed; we cleaned out the dilapidated little garden shed that was home for the ride-on. I felt a sense of safety when we were on our property, Though there were bushfires elsewhere in the country, our island was well out of the path of such disasters. We were a long way from active earthquake faults, out of reach of the fiercest tsunami and not prone to flooding or drought. Having our own land gave me a sense of being closely connected to the country.
It felt like we were off to a good start.
* * *
Have you noticed when you visit a new country, you are always lost for a while as you try to get a finger on the pulse of the local culture?
During this time of getting to know our new property, I discovered that even if I had travelled to a new country – from Canada to Australia – and stayed here for over twenty years, I still didn’t have my finger perfectly on the cultural pulse.
Take for example, the Aussie shed.
We now owned one. A big green iron-clad shed. And I was missing a vital bit of awareness about an important tradition. Let me illustrate.
A few weeks after Christmas, the six of us were celebrating Rick and my recent move to a rented townhouse in Wollstonecraft. We had successfully sold our house; our children Michael and Jenn had relocated into shared accommodation with friends, and Rick and I had decided to abandon suburbia and position ourselves closer to the city centre. It was a short commute to work – a short distance to everything, really, and we were happy with the move.
The group was embroiled in a discussion about how to improve our ease of communicating on matters related to our new property. Daniel said, “Okay, so I’ll start an email group with the six of us in it. What shall I call it?”
Michael cleared his throat. “I’ve been thinking about that, and I’ve come up with a good name for us. Well, I think it’s a good one. How about we call ourselves the Shedders?”
Michael always thinks of excellent names for things. He manages to whack a double-meaning in every time, and almost always the result is empowering and fun.
Everybody chuckled and nodded.
Except me. I said, “Why ‘the Shedders’? Sounds like typical Aussie self-deprecating humour. But let’s not deprecate our new home.”
Although we owned what was technically a shed, built top to bottom of corrugated iron, its shedness was nothing to boast about. I much preferred to think of our new possession as a cabin, although it clearly wasn’t a proper one, or better yet, as a cottage. A summer cottage, even – the sort of dwelling every Canadian would like to own on a lake somewhere, though admittedly in the northern hemisphere it would be built of wood, have charming gables, and be furnished with quaint and tasteful old-fashioned furniture. I liked the thought of saying, We’re going up to Mitchells Island to the summer cottage for a few days. It certainly sounded better than, We’re going up to the shed.
Michael regarded me with a trace of impatience. “There is nothing more venerable than the Aussie shed,” he said. “It’s part of the rural tradition. Everyone has a shed, and a good many country folk live in them. It’s not deprecating at all.”
I frowned. “I don’t mind the other context. ‘Shedding’, getting rid of unwanted stuff,” I said. Rick and I had taken on a project a few weeks ago that we called Losing a Ton. We’d announced we were going to identify and jettison the equivalent of fifty 40-pound cartons of possessions we no longer needed. Roughly one ton of clothing, linen, kids’ toys, filing cabinets, bank records, unused cookbooks and vinyl albums were finding their way to new homes or the tip. We were discarding many of the millstones around our necks and it felt great. “I can relate to shedding useless possessions.”
“Not only that,” Eve said. “But it’s about shedding habits and attitudes that might have once served us, but no longer do. Now that we are heading toward a new way of life, we need to make internal space for new ways of being.”
I liked that. I just wasn’t sure about calling our new accommodation a shed. But it didn’t seem worth going to the barricades over. Who cared what an email group was called? “Okay, I get it,” I said. “Sure, let’s call ourselves the Shedders.”
“All right then,” Daniel said. “I’ll create the email group and we’ll call it the Shedders. Just let me know which email addresses you want included.”
Rick offered up another round of wine and the conversation meandered on.
So that’s how we came to know ourselves as the Shedders.
I’d said the words, “I get it”, but I see now I didn’t get it at all, that I had only begun to climb a new face of the learning curve in getting to know my adopted country. I was about get some lessons in the subtleties of the countryside in which we were choosing to live, and of the Australian culture in general.
* * *
Two weekends later Michael, Judy, Rick and I were up at The Shed (which I was calling the cabin when I spoke about it with other people), enjoying the natural beauty and effortless tranquillity of the property, the ocean and the sunsets.
You never know when opportunity will knock. We were out driving on a local country road when we noticed a sign announcing, Garage Sale. We stopped in, hoping to be able to scrounge up something to help furnish our barren shed.
We were in luck. We found a somewhat battered but functional dining table with a half dozen chairs covered with what once would have been an arresting gold and black striped plush fabric. Judy and I also unearthed a pink foam fold-out sofa that would serve as a much-needed bed. Michael favoured an old aluminium kettle he’d found. We borrowed Maggie’s ute and carted our new possessions home. They were objects more suited to a shed than a cabin, but they were functional and I wasn’t about to quibble.
The problem was, once we took that sofa into The Shed, we quickly realised there was no living in the same space with it. It stank. Months, possibly years, of rough living had given it an unbearable mustiness.
I was all for tying it to the top of our car and hauling it back to the sellers to try to get our $45 back. But Judy said, “Give me a few hours and I’ll see what I can do.” I helped her drag it outside where she scrubbed it down with carpet cleaner. She set it to bake in the sun for a few hours so whatever smelly organisms had taken ownership would give up the ghost.
Her treatment did the trick. The smell pretty much vanished. However, I never felt quite the same about that sofa again, and I can’t recall any of us actually sleeping on it.
Green tin sheds, pink foamy fold-out sofas, battered old kettles – was there no end to what I would have to endure in the Aussie countryside? My ex-pat standards regarding the out-of-town vacation home were under attack.
* * *
Toward the end of that day, the four of us were standing outside gazing down the hillside when Michael uttered the fateful words, “Well, the look of the place will be much improved once we get the pines out of here.”
I couldn’t believe I’d heard right. I stared at him. “Pardon?” I said.
“These pines are nasty pests; they might even be on the noxious weeds list. We’ll have to get rid of them at some point.”
I could see Rick beside me gearing for battle. “What on earth is wrong with them?” he said. “How could they possibly be noxious weeds? I’m shocked that a vociferous greenie like yourself would call for destroying healthy trees.”
Michael took the direct attack. “Well,” he challenged, “they’re incredibly invasive. This particular forest has probably grown up in the last ten or fifteen years, spread from the neighbour’s farm over there.” He gestured toward a pine windbreak on the adjoining farm.
“So what?” Rick said. “Invasive just means healthy.”
“You can’t call that healthy,” Michael replied, raising the tension a notch or two. “See how the pines don’t allow any natives to grow under the canopy? Only lantana thrives. And the pines aren’t home to native species. Very few birds will live in them.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Rick said, which is his way of saying, I’m not listening and we’re not talking about this anymore.
“Well,” Michael said, backing off a bit. “There’s no big rush. We can leave them for a while longer.”
“Those pines go over my dead body,” Rick informed us. Heading tactfully toward consensus was not always his strong suit.
I stood quietly, digesting this conversation. I thought about the mosquitoes that thrived in the floor of pine forests. I thought about the views to the south that were disrupted by the towering pines. But I could no more see ripping out a pine forest than I could see turning our acreage into a strip mine. I remained motionless, listening to one of my favourite sounds on earth: wind sighing through pines.
At that moment, I’m glad nobody asked me to choose between the pines and my friends.
* * *
The pines refused to stay off the agenda.
A few days later the Shedders were back in Rick and my flat in Wollstonecraft, debriefing the weekend that the four of us had just shared at Mitchells Island.
We all agreed we’d had a wonderful time, although, Michael said, we did have a difference of opinion on the subject of the pines.
To my dismay, Daniel jumped in on the side of evil. “Oh, yes,” he said. “The pines. We’ll have to get rid of them sooner or later.”
Eve, sensing the tension in the room, was conciliatory. “They are quite beautiful in their way,” she said. “But they are a noxious weed and, like the lantana, sooner or later we’ll have to deal with them. Imagine how beautiful that hillside will be when it’s cleared and we can look out over the valley. It will be breathtaking.”
“And imagine how much we’ll be able to get for the lumber,” Judy added. “Surely there’ll be a local sawmill that will want the wood. We should be able to break even.”
I knew when I was outnumbered. Rick went quiet, which meant either he was starting to reconsider or he was digging his heels in and planning an underground resistance movement.
Myself, I was no longer completely sure. Prior to the meeting, I had researched pines on Google, discovering there were mixed views, with some strong arguments against this particular introduced species. As an introduced species myself, I was perhaps taking the whole thing somewhat personally.
Daniel, always sensitive to avoiding an impasse, stepped in. “Let’s look at the big picture for a minute,” he said. “When we bought the property, we bought something we all loved. But we acknowledged from the start that it might not be the final thing, the actual place we develop and build on. This might just be a practice run. So why don’t we say we’ll leave it alone for a year? Next Christmas we’ll revisit and decide what our next steps will be. Meantime, we don’t do anything serious with it; we don’t make any big decisions. We don’t think about putting up a new house, we leave the pines, we don’t do anything much to improve The Shed. We just suck-it-and-see for a year.
Eve’s eyes lit up. “That gives us a whole year to talk about it and create a vision.”
Anything that involved leaving the pines alone was all right with me. And I liked the idea of taking more time to craft an intention that would bring to life what we might do with the new property.
I thought to myself, this project is making me become Aussie faster than my previous twenty-two years here all together. I was getting a glimmer of how pines and sheds might become dominant features in my life over the next several years.